In close relationships, gender drives differences

Kimmo Kaski

Analysing a huge dataset of mobile phone calls and text messages has shown striking differences between women and men in their closest social relationships. A study led by researchers from Aalto University also discovered that there are gender differences in ways of finding a mate, planning reproduction and taking care of children. The research is now published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Researcher Vasyl Palchykov, FiDiPro Professor Janos Kertész and Dean Kimmo Kaski from the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Computational Science in Aalto University headed the study.

Members of the research group also included internationally renowned network theorist and physicist Albert-László Barabási from Northeastern University in the USA and Professor Robin Dunbar of Oxford University in England.

By analysing nearly two billion mobile phone calls and a half a million text messages sent by over three million people, the group was able to define ‘a best friend’, a person who a user called and texted the most.

The researchers focused on the top three best friends and discovered striking differences in the ways women and men of different ages maintain their closest relationships.

The results suggest that women between their early twenties and the age of 45 focus clearly on finding a potential mate, that is, their most intense and close contacts are with men. The tendency is less evident with men: their nearest friends are equally female, and although the ‘best friend’ is often a wife or a girlfriend, the level of contact is less intense than it is for women.

Daughters replace spouses as women’s ‘best friends’ when approaching middle age. More clearly than men, women also direct their attention more to their grandchildren than their spouses.

Middle-aged men do not have the same gender bias in their nearest and dearest: although the spouse often notwithstanding, men divide their time equally to both genders. After the age of 60 women are more likely to be in closest contact with their daughters than their spouses or sons.

The researchers are convinced that for the first time they have captured pronounced differences between men and women in the behavioural patterns regarding reproductive strategies and interests. Gender biases in women’s relationships lead the researchers to assume that the intimate structure of social networks is notably more the result of action of and bonding between women than men.

Most research of large-scale social networks has tended to treat human relationships as static. This research shows on the other hand that the closest social relationships are dynamic and prone to change over a lifetime. Although the results have been previously anticipated, the study remarks that it has until now been difficult or impossible to test them.

The group trusts that there will be novel fields of application for the patterns discovered and the vast network datasets exploited. Provided that the right kinds of questions are asked.

The article Sex differences in intimate relationships by Vasyl Palchykov, Kimmo Kaski, Janos Kertész, Albert-László Barabási & Robin I. M. Dunbar in Scientific Reports, issue 2/2012 (370).


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